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Willie Rennie backs all women shortlists

August 24, 2015 1:30 PM
In Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Willie Rennie, Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader and MSP for Mid Scotland & FifeWillie Rennie has announced that he supports the use of all women shortlists and quotas to improve the Scottish Liberal Democrats' appalling record on gender balance. He is to lead a group which will draw up specific proposals for the 2019 European, 2020 Westminster and 2021 Holyrood elections.

The Scottish Party looked on in shock when members in the North East did not place highly effective Justice Spokesperson at the top of the list when it was selected at the end of last year. Since then, and particularly following the General Election, there have been strong calls for much stronger action on gender balance. Willie has consulted widely within the party and he announced his plans at the Scottish Party's and Scottish Liberal Democrat Women's Everyday Sexism Open Mic event in Edinburgh yesterday.

The Working Group to be led by Willie will consider all options including:

• All women shortlists

• Making gender a part of the party's electoral strategy

• Quota systems

Willie said:

I have lost patience with the current system and its inability to ensure proper representation of women. It is now time to take the necessary action to deliver change.

A fresh start for the Liberal Democrats requires us to change. We need to be more reflective of the people we seek to represent and to perform at our best we need to deploy our best people to make the case for our cause.

Despite an abundance of talented women the party has been unable to put enough in positions to get elected. It is difficult to make the case for opportunity for everyone when only one of our parliamentarians is a woman.

Twenty years ago my party agreed in the Constitutional Convention to work towards a gender balance in our Scottish Parliamentary representation. Yet since the Scottish Parliament was created we have elected no more than two women at the four elections to Holyrood. I determined to finally deliver the commitment made to the Constitutional Convention.

Encouragement and organisational support is simply insufficient to overcome the barriers to electing women.

That is why I will lead a working group to finalise proposals to put to the Spring Conference of the Scottish Liberal Democrats that will break down those barriers and increase the representation of women Liberal Democrats in Parliament.

It is my intention that the new arrangements will be in place for the European Election in 2019 and will also apply to the 2020 General Election and 2021 Scottish Parliamentary Election.

The Scottish Party has historically been very resistant to the idea of any mechanism to ensure fair representation of women. They refused to entertain the idea of zipping for either the European Elections or the Scottish Parliament elections in 1999. Although Elspeth Attwool was elected as MEP, the situation in the Scottish Parliament was dire with only 2 women out of 17 MSPs up until 2007, 2 out of 16 between 2007-11 and 1 out of 5 since 2011.

Willie's proposals will be controversial, but it will be impossible for opponents to argue that the status quo is working. The argument often used by those opponents is that they want people selected on "merit" as if the current system guaranteed that the best people came top. In fact, in a timely blog for the Women 5050 campaign, Edinburgh University's Dr Meryl Kenny provides evidence that quota systems and all women shortlists actually ensure that candidates are of higher quality.

Those who oppose quotas will often claim that of course they would like to see more women in politics, but they would prefer that candidates for political office be chosen on the basis of 'merit'. This, they will tell you, is about fairness and objectivity - one should always (to paraphrase Yes Minister) strive to appoint the 'best man for the job, regardless of sex.'

The underlying assumption here is, of course, that women have less 'merit' than men - in other words, that quotas promote inexperienced and unqualified women at the expense of their more meritorious male counterparts. But, there is very little research evidence (either in the UK or comparatively) to suggest that this is the case. Studies focused on political experience and backgrounds, for example, have found little evidence of a 'qualifications gap' between quota and non-quota women and men - in fact, the opposite has been observed in several cases, with women candidates and MPs sometimes possessing stronger credentials than their male counterparts (providing support to the old adage that women have to be twice as good to get half as far…). Meanwhile studies of parliamentary behaviour suggest that 'quota women' are just as effective as men once they are in office and that they have equally successful career trajectories. Finally, while quotas may be unpopular with the public, voters do not penalise women candidates at the ballot box, and quotas don't lose votes.

He also risks annoying those people who want action now, not to wait another 4 years for change. Many people feel that the party risks electing no women at all next year. The most likely prospects are Christine Jardine who has been selected for Aberdeenshire East, Alison McInnes who, on a good day, might get elected on the North East list (although it's almost impossible for her and Christine both to be elected) and Katy Gordon in the West of Scotland, but it's far from assured that any of them will succeed.

In terms of the 2016 election, Willie's hands were tied by a decision of the Scottish Party Executive in 2013 by just one vote to select the regional lists before the 2015 General Election. I was one of those voting against early selection because I wanted to give us more time to attract a more diverse range of candidates. I also believe that for list selections the longer you have prospective candidates working in the region as they pursue that top spot, the better. I still think it was a mistake to select the lists so early. However, we are where we are. A selection process carried out according to the rules would be very difficult to overturn and would be open to challenge. Believe me, it has been looked at from every single angle. While there may be a will to take action sooner, doing so peaceably and in a way that doesn't wreck our campaign for next year is simply not possible.

Willie's more long-term approach should ensure balanced representation in all three parliaments within 6 years. The Scottish Party cannot afford to flunk this. We will look very stupid if we do not agree to Willie's considered proposals.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings